Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Golden Calf for Investors - Weekly Blog # 519


According to human experience as recorded in The Old Testament, in a period of great uncertainty many people look for certainty when faced with a tricky period ahead. Today’s investors are in a similar quandary. In their search for a defined future, there is great appeal in simple tangible answers. Today, many investors have conflicting views as to the future direction of their investments. We are now facing a tricky market and there is great appeal in simple declarations of faith or the lack of faith.

The one thing I am totally convinced of is that there are no good simple answers, despite what future market historians will condense for an impatient audience.

The Known Knowns

Without putting dates or timespans on when these conditions will become dominant and for how long, based on human experience there are two knowns.

1. Due to excessive expansions of capacity and credit there will be future recessions. These could start soon or after various coincident changes. The base causes are what they have always been; imprudent expansion based on excessive enthusiasm. The coincident events or actions will not be the base causes for a period of unhappiness, but will supply a label to those looking to others for an explanation and not to themselves, in order to not get caught up in the tidal wave. Perhaps as an equity owner for clients and my family I don’t see a high level of an immediate risk. As long as the latest survey of the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) shows that 42.8% of respondents to their weekly poll are bearish for the next six months compared to 26.1% bullish and 31.2% neutral, I am not too worried. Further, a major US-domiciled brokerage and wealth management firm is on record stating that investors should use rises in stock prices as an opportunity to sell. I would agree that it is an opportunity…for the firm to free up investors’ capital, often held with large unrealized gains, which might lead to future investments, often in packaged products with favorable economics for the intermediary. (There is always a risk for all contrarians that a popular view will be accurate. This is a lesson that gets reinforced at the racetrack.)

2.  The second “known” is the human survival instinct. Greed and fear drive all of us. Our primary driver is greed to obtain at least minimum subsistence and beyond to higher and higher levels of security. Fear is the worry that we and our loved ones will not survive without the appropriate levels of financial, intellectual, and health resources. The solution to both primal drives is to secure sufficient resources beyond our subsistence levels. The excess beyond consumption is savings, including debt reduction, and investments for longer term needs.

Unlike the first known which is periodically important, the second is a global constant in all of our lives. For the moment it appears that aggregate corporate and personal revenues will be growing beyond the AAII six month focused period and way beyond for those of us who believe that we will grow on a secular basis. (Note I did not mention corporate earnings, which will discussed shortly.)

One of the long-term reasons to be bullish on the future level of global investment is China. As of May1st (May Day) China will for the first time permit the commercial sale and operation of pension plans. Contributions to the plans will be tax incentivized and open to foreign insurance companies which the Chinese government has authorized. In most of Asia, beneath the level of stocks owned by International Index funds, the valuations appear to be cheaper than those found in the US. However, a detailed accounting and operational comparison is needed to show that they are more valuable to own, although we tend to think so.

Near Term Debt Worries

Because of the insistent drive for current yield, almost every financial institution or intermediary is selling a credit focused product which will hold direct loans rather than tradeable bonds. Three quotes from the Financial Times on the views of S&P sum up our concerns:

“S&P warns of risks in leveraged loan sector as private equity deals surge.”
“We’ve already seen weaker (covenant) terms deteriorating over the last couple of years.”
History shows us that the worst debt transactions are done at the best of times.”

Another long article published in the weekend issue of the FT is entitled “The volatility virus tells the history of turning volatility into an investable product.” The article mentions that today there are at least forty exchange traded products (ETPs), funds and notes that alone trade VIX elements.  This comes to the heart of a concern of mine. Too many of the media pundits treat ETFs and ETNs as retail alternatives to conventional mutual funds, when in reality they have become cheap trading vehicles for professional speculators. The available ETPs have replaced the more expensive futures as the derivative of choice. Not only are they cheaper to transact but they are more easily marginable or borrowed against. I suspect that a significant portion of the trading, particularly near the close of the days’ trading, is to facilitate short sales in “pair” like trading, which entails being long another index derivative or an individual stock or bond.

There are still a lot of derivatives being used in fixed income, currencies, and commodity trading. These are global markets with individual country banking rules. All of these vehicles are used as collateral to support trading positions with call loans that can require immediate repayment of the supporting loans. Rarely are these loans repaid with existing cash, but are paid with securities that are not immediately price sensitive. These trading and lending activities are conducted by trading groups and banks that have to maintain given levels of capital. If there is a sudden fall in the level of collateral, other assets will often have to be sold without sensitivity to current prices. We have seen this occur in the past.

Equity Concerns

If one pays complete attention to the media prognosticators, the only thing in the end driving stock prices are earnings per share, or if you will the rejuvenation of the biblical Golden Calf. The followers, including a number of university professors, would have achieved losses on Friday. According to them, the market was going to be led by the earnings reported by three major US money center banks on Friday.

In each case their announcements stressed the favorable comparison to their reported earnings compared to those of the prior year. Thus the stock market should have gone up. It didn’t, which was not a surprise to me. Ruth, my good wife, asked me after I got off the first of the earnings calls what I thought. I replied that the announcement was quite positive, but I saw problems when I went through the detail of the announcement. By the end of the day the stocks of the banks and a good bit of the market was down 2-3%. It was not a case of buy on the rumor or expectation and sell on the news, which often happens.

My concerns were first that the market price assumed that the tax generated savings were a growth element rather than a onetime benefit, (the expected state and local tax increases plus higher sales and use fees one might expect a bigger tax rate going forward).  An operating concern was that the reported earnings benefitted from buybacks and the release of some credit reserves and similar adjustments.

Revenues were largely up but not spectacularly. Often these reports brag about relative investment performance vs. peers, which was missing, but not their selective inflow comments. Bottom line: the results did not trigger additional buying or selling in our long-term accounts. The level of operating pre-tax earnings was acceptable.
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Sunday, April 8, 2018

Critical Time for Critical Questions - Weekly Blog # 518


Critical Time

For the US stock market, we may be at a critical time or juncture leading to materially higher or lower stock prices. Are we pausing in a correction or are we on the way to a full bear market of about twice the decline already experienced, or worse? Are we in the process of successfully testing the February bottom?

To me, as both an analyst/portfolio manager and a handicapper trained contrarian, I think the odds are good for the first, but not the second. To me, as an observer at the  race track, favorites typically win about a third of the time. I look at sentiment readings and the mainstream media for clues. Given three choices, bullish, bearish, and neutral, the latest weekly survey sample of the American Association of Individual Investors (AAII) has pushed the bearish button to being a slight leader. Normally, most investors are bullish most of the time. Their views are being reinforced or led by large elements of the coastal media who are proclaiming the market slide as confirmation of the supposed failures of President Trump.

Using my training as a racetrack handicapper, I suggest the odds we are experiencing a successful test is better than 60%. Those odds are in the same neighborhood as investors’ own various mutual funds which are 67.74% in equity funds. (Strange how the 2/3 to 1/3 split is similar to the standard attack format for successful battles won by the US Marines.)

As focused as most investors are on the next general direction for the market, the key is not the tactical direction, but the answers to long-term strategic questions. Just as at the track, the key to walking away a winner in dollars is how one handles the betting money. The key to being a winning investor is reasonably answering the following strategic questions.

Critical Questions

The single most important question (usually not answered) occurs when someone asks for a stock recommendation. Until a stock is no longer trading, history suggests that it will have a plus sign in terms of its performance for some period. Thus, it is not whether this stock will rise in price, but whether it will rise over a pre-designated time span. Just as it is a mistake to bet on every race during your day at the track, it is also a mistake to have a single portfolio that one believes will be a winner for the current, intermediate, and long-term. This is particularly true today, with half the stocks disappearing over the last twenty years or so.

We have been an advocate for dividing institutional and individual portfolios into separate time-span portfolios. Different securities are likely to dominate the short-term or Operational Portfolio, Intermediate or Replenishment Portfolio, longer term Endowment Portfolio and the beyond the control of the current investor Legacy Portfolio. I would be pleased to work with subscribers to construct these portfolios. The following are not recommendations but illustrations as to what we would be looking for in the candidates:

Short term/operational Portfolio - mutual funds with a balance of short-term high quality fixed income and high quality liquid stocks
Intermediate/replenishment Portfolio - medium price/earnings ratio stocks paying average dividends
Longer-term/endowment Portfolio - mutual funds of established growth companies with high return on tangible assets and p/e no more than 150% of market
Legacy Portfolio -  funds or companies that look to the next generation of leadership e.g. Berkshire Hathaway*

*Held in client and personal portfolios

One of the most difficult questions to deal with is the measurement of success. To the extent that a portfolio is meant to produce capital (principal, income or total return), the clearest measure is absolute return. If there is a competitive need to be fulfilled, then an external index or indices are needed. (University endowments are in competition to get the best faculty and foundations are in competition to get grants.) The critical key in choosing a measuring rod is how the index is constructed and changed, the rigor of measurement, data availability, and whether the proposed portfolio will be restricted to elements within the index. I have a bias in favor of using mutual fund indices and averages when they qualify. Some of the areas they cover include market capitalization, growth, value, and core, world equity and debt, sector funds, mixed asset funds, various types of bond and credit funds, and different types of money market vehicles.

Be very careful not to lump conventional mutual funds in with Exchange Traded Products (Funds and Notes). While both are registered under the Investment Company Act of 1940, they are designed and largely used differently than the larger universe of conventional mutual funds. Exchange Traded Products do not have cash to buffer market price changes and flows, they have relatively fixed portfolios and are primarily used to express specific long or short points of view. The bulk of their volatile flows come from trading organizations or advisors who trade their accounts. Recently, they have not been particularly good at handling these difficult markets. According to The Wall Street Journal which tracked the price performance of 72 stock indexes last week, including currencies, commodities and ETFs, there were no ETFs in the top 21 or bottom 27 slots. This suggests to me is that the market is reconstructing the winning and losing groups.

The purpose of comparing performances of various instruments is to create awareness of what is going on and to manage expectations. The result of measurement leads to an understanding as to what portion of one’s portfolio is for investment or speculative purposes. The answer is not always found in the nature of the instruments, but how and why the owner uses them. The market needs both investors and speculators as they often trade with each other to enlarge or reduce their universe. The changes in the value of investments and speculative vehicles are dependent on these trades. Market prices don’t generally move a lot unless investors are selling to speculators or the reverse. For example, during periods of high price momentum, with the exception of scale orders to enlarge or reduce the size of a position, wise investors should leave the action to the speculators.

Questions of the Week:

How many, if any, sub portfolios do you use?
What is the ratio in your own account of investments to speculations?
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Sunday, April 1, 2018

“The Risk to Worry About” - Weekly Blog # 517.


Recently I ran into an old friend at a cocktail party who is retired from being the managing editor of a trade newspaper. He expressed concern as to his own investments with the current volatility. I suggested that the time he should have been worrying about risk was during the fourteen months ending in January, after nine years of rising markets! He was much more comfortable with gradual gains and no declines greater than 3%. I said he should have been worried about risk when others were not, which is perhaps the best measure of the reciprocal level of certainty that a large number of pundits proclaim.

You never know about the future, but one can guess what you don’t know. While in the US Marines as an officer, we were instructed when planning for an operation to identify the essential elements of information (EEI). We quickly learned that it was rare to have as much as 70% of the EEI. Applying the same approach to handicapping at the racetrack, I was pleased to find 60% of the EEI. I feel the same today when selecting individual stocks and funds.

I suggest that in each of our attempts to measure risk, the largest single risk is the unknown and it rises when the pundits are more certain.

Is the Public Smarter?

“Americans Hold Off on Spending Extra Tax Dollars” was a page 2 headline in The Wall Street Journal on Friday. In addition, February was the third month that overall retail sales were slightly off from prior months. Consumer spending was up +0.2% compared to a rise in wages of +0.4%. This was not what was expected. I cheered this announcement as it demonstrates consumers are acting rationally. In the end, the article did point out that a number of consumers were using their tax benefit dollars to reduce their high interest loans. (Economists would label this as savings or deferred spending.) 

Consumers should be fearful of increased state and local taxes as well as increased fees paid to government agencies, and for business sales/use taxes. They should be saving and investing to reduce their growing retirement capital deficit. I don’t know whether it has yet entered into the public’s psyche that there is a chance that the purchase prices of their items will bear the costs mentioned and possibly the impact of tariffs.

A Second Example of Consumer Smarts

For the last several years American investors have been net buyers of “non-domestic equity funds.” I am guessing that these buyers are not largely the same fund investors that have been redeeming older domestic equity funds. I believe the redeemers are completing their expected retirement, estate building, and large purchase needs. To the extent that older fund investors are adding foreign stock investments, they are hedging their domestic equity funds. For a number of years the US dollar has been weak compared with other currencies and deservedly so. Despite foreign investors buying US securities for refuge, it makes sense for US investors to invest overseas. Often there are lower valuations in local markets, which makes sense when considering they are also in less liquid markets. They are also unique investments not found within US borders.

Traders are also buying more overseas investments while redeeming domestic ones. Each week my old firm, now a part of Thomson Reuters, measures the net flows of both conventional mutual funds and Exchange Traded Funds and Exchange Traded Notes. For the last week, ending on Wednesday, ETFs had net redemptions of $11.5 Billion in domestic equity vehicles while conventional mutual funds had $2.5 Billion. (Remember the assets of ETFs are much smaller than conventional mutual funds.) It is worth noting that just two ETFs had combined net redemptions of $10.6 Billion in S&P 500 invested portfolios. This suggests to me that the redemptions came from a small group of trading desks and not the general public.

The fallacy of the “risk on/risk off” approach

The financial media has gotten into the habit of describing market movements as either “risk on” or “risk off.” This is simplistic but can be a binary switch for a quantitative portfolio. It assumes that the investor has identified the risks. Perhaps, this in and of itself is a big risk.  Many can produce a roster of risks. Few can weight them. Fewer still can set the time when their impact will be felt.

The fallacy of the “risk on/ risk off” approach is that it is one directional. At all times we should be looking at both the opportunity for risk and reward. In this case those that invest in mutual funds have an advantage over those that use only individual securities. Mutual funds have flows that many individual investments don’t have. Flows drive buy and sell reactions which cause the portfolio to change. (Often a fund in net redemption benefits from pruning the least attractive current holdings and has an additional opportunity to switch into new investments.) 
Regardless of how one’s portfolio is structured, you should always be looking to add opportunity.

Quotes from Berkshire Hathaway’s Annual Report*

While Warren Buffet lays out their thinking about acquisitions of companies, the principles can be applied to selected individual stocks.

  •     good returns on net tangible assets and a sensible price
  •   “We evaluate acquisitions on an all-equity basis.”
  •  “Betting on people can sometimes be more certain than betting on       physical assets” (I would include shown financial assets.)
  •  Berkshire’s goal is to substantially increase the earnings of the non-insurance group through a large acquisition.
  •   Berkshire has suffered four short-term price declines of 59.1%, 37.1%, 48.9% and 50.7%.
  •  “An unsettled mind will not make good decisions.”
  • “Charlie and I will focus on investments and capital allocation.”

Perhaps the single most important clue to Berkshire Hathaway’s long-term thinking is the following statement:

  • “The Yahoo broadcast of the meetings and interviews will be translated simultaneously into Mandarin.”

*Held in client and personal portfolios

Question of the Week: What are the risks to your portfolio that others don’t see?
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Sunday, March 25, 2018

A Good Week for Long-Term Stock Investors - Weekly Blog # 516


“Six months ago everything was good you couldn’t find a reason to sell stocks. Now you can’t find a reason to hold them.”  I was delighted to read this quote in The Wall Street Journal. I only hope there are more expressed sentiments of discouragement. As our subscribers have learned, such views and increased volume of transactions are necessary to have a successful test of a bottom. The actual index close can be higher, lower, or equal to the questioned low point, but without a change in sentiment it is just statistics.

Parsing out the quote I found the singular buy and sell driver encapsulated in one word, “a”. Perhaps it is my long training as an analyst and portfolio manager, as well as a racetrack handicapper, or just living through these times. However, I have never not had conflicting reasons to buy or sell or take any other actions. One of the training techniques for salespeople when trying to make a sale is called “The Ben Franklin Close”. Perhaps the wisest of the Founding Fathers, who was essentially a successful businessman, used the approach of listing the plusses and minuses of a proposal in two columns on a single page. As long as the potential buyer accepted the validity of the list and the positives out-numbered the negatives, Ben Franklin closed the deal. To make a final decision, I require the weighting of each listed item not just the number of items. My experience has made me a contrarian. I always have doubts.

Investors make the most money in periods of doubt. These periods of doubt are often ones where the bulk of the “experts” are on one side or the other. For example, the vast group of experts who were against the British leaving the European Union predicted dire results if the foolish people voted for Brexit. They predicted unemployment would rise significantly, the value of the currency would drop, and London would be deserted by the financial community. In a front page article in the weekend WSJ Review section, a British editor indicated that the Brits are doing just fine. Unemployment is the lowest it has been in years and the pound is higher than it has been in some time. Additionally, the number of the financial people being transferred to the Continent appears to be in the hundreds not the thousands predicted.

Recognizing that I can and have been wrong, or at least premature, periods of doubt represent opportunities that “experts” can be wrong. After all, the Western Hemisphere was discovered during a period where many “experts” believed the earth to be flat, because they could not see beyond the horizon. By definition, long term investors must look beyond their current horizons.

An Explanation via Fund Data

Investment Performance

One of the main differences between growth and value fund investors is the time horizon expected to bring gains.

The growth investor is looking to a brighter future for the companies in which they invest. Value investors are betting that there will come a time when the values they perceive become more appreciated. Over time both have produced good results, but at different times. (This is why in many of our fund portfolios there is a sample of each discipline. Due to the long underperformance of value-driven funds, a contrarian might start to nibble. It is quite possible in the next wave of acquisition activity that smart acquirers will recognize the value properties before the market does.)

Currently, while the “popular” media is full of headlines as to problems, successful investors are evidently favoring growth. In the year to March 22nd, most equity funds are down a bit, but there are only eight fund peer group averages that are up 3% or more. Of the US Diversified Equity funds, only the four growth fund categories produced 3% or more. In the Sector fund group, just the Global Science and Technology funds make the grade, and they were higher than the Growth funds. Just two other investment objective categories: Latin American funds and China Region funds made the 3% gainers leaders.


While exchange traded products are governed by many of the same regulations as conventional mutual funds, the reasons their owners use them are different, therefore they should not all be lumped together in deciding market implications. The vast bulk of the money in ETFs and ETNs is invested in broad Index funds, which are primarily used by trading entities like hedge funds and discretionary advisors. In numerous cases these have replaced more expensive derivatives.

Mutual funds, a much older investment vehicle, were primarily designed for retirement, estate building, and other long-term needs. They are found in individual accounts, defined contribution plans [401k], and individual retirement accounts [IRA]. As the participants fulfill their needs they redeem their existing funds and use the money, or change to more conservative investment options. For many years growth funds were among the most popular funds, performing quite well and above most retirement measures. Because of the lack of growth of new investors, redemptions are not being offset by new sales. To my mind these are “completions” of earlier promises.

To respond to the lack of growth in sales of funds at the retail level, brokers in the US and elsewhere have been reducing the number of funds being offered and reducing the number of fund houses with which they are dealing. Funds are not the most profitable products for brokers and some managers. At some point this may change.

On the Horizon

Committees in the US Congress and the Administration are working on a second tax bill. Some of the possible provisions address the need to create more retirement capital in the US. Other countries are also addressing the lack of sufficient retirement capital in an era of extending life spans, expensive health care, and slower to no worker growth. Seniors vote, while often young people don’t.


Despite perceived and perhaps more importantly unperceived problems, equity risk investing is needed by the world and will happen.

The more people sell the more opportunities exist for the patient buyers and their advisors.


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A. Michael Lipper, CFA
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Contact author for limited redistribution permission.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Investors Need to be Wrong to be Right – Weekly Blog # 515


Investing is an art not a science. In science the search is for a repeatable answer under every identified condition. As strong as it may seem to many, the search is not in the end the largest performance number. The search is the delivery of the required funds to meet the accepted needs of the beneficiaries; be they institutions or individuals investing within the realms of prudence. Thus, the investment manager’s primary function is to aid in the feeling of the well-being of the beneficiary. According to a recent report on happiness as applied to nations, well-being is based on income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust, and generosity. It is far easier to contribute to well-being through sound investing. I believe our clients hire us to provide sound investments for them in order to accomplish their well-being. Thus far I have been able to deliver. But much of this is not based on the certainty of math and science that I learned in school and university, but as a handicapper at the New York racetracks. From an investment standpoint what I learned at the track that is useful can be summarized as follows:

1.  The objective is not to win every race but to finish the day as a winner (including expenses).

2.  Don’t bet on every race, there could even be days when no bets are made as the payoff odds are not appropriate to the probabilities foreseen.

3.  Occasionally the most popular bet is logical in terms of expected results, but the payoffs are too low because it doesn’t take into consideration what can be called “racing luck.” At these times it could make sense to invest in the second or third most logical horse if they are being offered at reasonable odds for second or third place and turn into larger money makers if racing luck overcomes the favorite. This is a good bet as favorites rarely win, even half the time.

4.  After concluding the most logical result, the real analysis begins, which is how much should be bet on this horse in this race? Weighting one’s bets can make the difference of a nice win vs loss record and walking away as a winner for the day.

5.  Accepting that I was wrong an uncomfortable number of times, but learning from the experience by re-examining both my analysis and how I handled my money and to a lesser degree my expenses.

Thus, I believe that, like other investors, I will be wrong in terms of market direction, sectors, “factors” and selections. To defend our beneficiaries’ interests I have adopted a policy of having a number of different bets at the same time, but with the recognition that unlike at the track where races end, the investment process continues through many cyclical periods.

“Goldilocks” May Be Leaving

Liz Ann Sonders of Charles Schwab among others is raising concerns about the future. After all, for at least nine years it has been somewhat easy to ride the secular rise in the US stock market. (Shorter periods for other stock markets.) This issue brings up a number of questions: evidence of impending change and what should be the correct investment policy going forward. In terms of evidence of impending change there are two important elements:  flows into stocks are from traders not investors and credits may be mispriced leading to fixed income not providing stable values. This week some in the press for the first time are heralding significant flows into the equity market from “funds”, which shows the Public is buying the current conditions. The truth, according to Thomson Reuters’ Lipper Inc., is that $20.4 Billion came in net, but $18.7 Billion went into domestic oriented ETFs with $8.2 Billion going into the SPDR S&P 500 and $3.1 Billion into PowerShares (Invesco*) QQQ. Both of these are favorites of hedge funds and other traders. In numerous cases ETFs and ETNs are being used by these players as substitutes for futures which are more expensive. I am noting that a number of investors have sold short some ETFs that represent over 10% of their assets and in at least one case over 100%. What may be more disturbing is that a number of independent investment advisors and a number of advisors working through brokerage firms are managing discretionary accounts exclusively in ETFs/ETNs. Some of these are probably good, but I suspect many do not have any successful background in market trends, sectors, “factors” and the selection of individual securities. They may be, along with others, contributing to a much higher turnover rate in ETF/ETN portfolios than conventional mutual funds.

*Invesco is held in a private Financial services fund and personal accounts that I manage.

Credit Concerns

Remember that most significant stock market declines begin after a period of fixed income market declines. Through March 15th most bond funds are showing a slightly negative total return, which includes both their income and their market movement. The only domestic groups that are not negative are loan participation funds, some specialized credit vehicles, and ultra short maturity funds. I don’t know when the next recession will commence, but I expect it will be within this first term of the President. I do know that during a recession bankruptcies and other financial difficulties occur and they are not being priced into the market. Institutional term loans are being priced at only 3.2% above prime corporates, compared with 3.1 % before the crisis that began in 2007-8. Further, while banks have much more capital than they did before the last crisis, their book of derivatives is somewhat higher.

In a talk at a Futures conference last week, my old friend Tom Russo, formerly General Counsel to Lehman Brothers, mentioned that when a counter-party believes it was duped, the entire class may be considered illegal as an auditor will have difficulty claiming the asset is worth 100 cents on the dollar. He said, according to the Financial Times, that “when you owe a little bit you call your bank - when you owe a lot you call your lawyer. “A good bit of derivatives are directly or indirectly financed through the credit market.

What Should Investors Be Doing Now?

There is no special reason for long-term investment policy to be changed as long as it contemplates that there will be periodic market declines. This is similar to money that is invested in what we label Legacy and Endowment Timespan L Portfolios®. For those with a shorter focus of at least five years, they should be making two lists of equities and equity managers.

The first list should be of items that at higher prices would become risky if the general stock market rises at a rapid rate. (There is some chance of this happening as new money rushes in on the basis of buy-the-dip or FOMO fear of missing out.) The risk is that such a surge most often leads to a major fall, which could lead to structural changes. The second list should be labeled “Hopefully not to be used, but probably will be.” It is a list of sound companies and managers who may be slightly damaged in a decline but will survive and prosper. Both of these lists should have names and prices scaled to avoid emotional price reactions. Five or ten price points could be prudent.
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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Danger Ahead, New High Stock Market: Is Capital Preservation with Appreciation the Answer? Weekly Blog # 514


At the end of February I was about to suggest that both the high and low for the year 2018 were in place. If either price was violated it would be troublesome. After the first nine days in March I am getting much more concerned about a breakout above the January highs.

Why are Higher Prices Dangerous?

Perhaps I am jumping to the wrong conclusions, but for many the 400 point rise of the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Friday can be chalked up to volatility, but others may see it as a successful test of the February lows. (I would have preferred a lower test with more volume of trading and statements of discouragements.) But the realist needs to accept reality, not wait for the perfect. There is a good chance that others will see it as a successful test, encouraging buyers with significant power to return and drive the next upward move. Using the very volatile sample by the AAII, 45.2% of their surveyed members are now neutral, which is higher than both their bullish and bearish members. This is a rapid change from just three weeks ago where the neutral tally was 32.6%. In the recent week the top 25 performing mutual funds had gains between +7.77% and +6.07%. All but one of these were growth oriented and or specifically science & tech oriented. 

Thomson Reuters tallies analysts’ earnings estimates and in their latest report the analysts expect the S&P600 Small Caps to have earnings growth for this year of +24.1%  compared with +19.45% for the S&P 500 and +37.67% for the Russell 2000. Both the fund performance leaders and earnings estimates are based on a belief that the future is going to be good, led by positive future developments in terms of technology, politics, and economics. (Perhaps they will be correct.)

After nine years of rising markets, I have been on the lookout for signs of an inevitable market decline. In terms of magnitude of decline a normal cyclical decline is in the range of 25%. These happen normally once within a decade. Not too many people are psychologically wiped out in these declines and usually return to the stock market within a few years after the decline.

A much more serious fall, that is often labeled a collapse, happens infrequently, normally once a generation and is generally in the range of 50% from the peak and has investors leaving the marketplace never to return, This type of fall is in the passing on their distrust of the market to the next generation. The individual and societal losses from these collapses are relatively small compared to the forgone profits from the recoveries, which impacts the rest of their lives and often also the next generation’s. As both a fiduciary and an investor I would like to avoid these results. I attempt to do this with an eye on a number of different market histories.

The major traumatic collapses start with apparently successful investing, that not only turns a small amount of money into a larger amount of money but inflates the investor’s belief in their own investment skills. Often this confidence leads to the use of borrowed money in the forms of margin or derivatives. A speculative fever takes over the crowd, while they recognize there is some risk their confidence is such that they can get out without large losses.

The driver of these “animal instincts” is based on an unshakeable view of the future. These speculative markets are driven by sentiment, not researched fundamental investing. This is why I am paying more attention to measures of sentiment, along with attention to internal financial calculations.  One of the fuels of a major top is the sucking into the market of all or most of the available cash.

Assuming the US and perhaps other markets pierce their former highs, the various pundits, including non-professionals, will proclaim that those not participating are stupid. They have never studied handicapping at the racetrack where in each race there is likely to be at least one horse with a good, very current record receiving a disproportionate amount of the betting money. This is the favorite of the crowd, no different than the current market where leading funds are heavily invested in a select group of multinational tech companies. At the track, while the favorites do win at short odds, they don’t win enough money to cover the losing bets the majority of the time.

I am concerned that over the next year or so too many investors, including those institutions that are de-risking, will get sucked into the market. My fear is not for them alone after their disappointment of losses from the next peak, but for the opportunity losses in a future recovery. Unfortunately in our society these are the losses that are socialized for the rest of us to pay.

What are the Signs to Watch?

Currently, the most visible largely speculative source of flows into and out of the market are the Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs). Much of the current activity in these securities is by traders, often at hedge funds, who are using ETFs rather than more expensive derivatives. In the last week, while the larger mutual fund industry had a small net inflow due to net purchases of non-domestic funds ($2Billion), ETFs had a net outflow of $12.6 Billion with $10.3 Billion in one ETF invested in the S&P 500. This is a sign of a trading market that has lots of speculation occurring.

The second item to watch for soon is mutual fund advertisements heralding their ten-year performance results, which had been trailing more current periods. It is easy to look good from a bottom in March of 2009.  These market efforts could bring a lot of unsophisticated money into the stock market, which will entice the so called sophisticated players to trade the market on the way up convinced that they can get out in time.

What can a Wise Investor Do?

In an over simplification, portfolio strategies can be divided into two buckets: Capital Preservation and Capital Appreciation. For some of our clients, particularly those who have worked hard for their money, their primary concern is capital preservation. This is particularly difficult today if one is concerned about after inflation and after tax earnings. Around the world, governments in theory are sponsoring inflation as a way to create jobs, by ballooning the income of businesses and individuals. What they are actually doing but not discussing is lowering the purchasing power of the loans that they are repaying. This is a continuation of a trend, as governments since their beginnings have debased their currency as a way to payback less value than what they received. 

To the capital owner and the individual, inflation is another form of taxation. In the current environment income taxes are not the only source of pain. Because of the recent changes in the US tax code, I believe we will see an aggregate increase in fees, tariffs, sales and use taxes, as well as various forms of value added taxes. If the job of capital preservation is to maintain the purchasing power of capital, it must earn more than inflation, all taxes, and other distributions. I suggest that in the current market, high quality bonds can’t produce the necessary income. (That is why in our TIMESPAN L Portfolios® we should only have fixed income in the Operational Portfolio.)

At this juncture, until we see much higher real interest rates, the best suggestion is high quality stocks whose yields are in the range of the ten year treasury and have a history of periodically raising dividends roughly in line with inflation. One would like to find dividend payout ratios below 50% of earnings, if possible. In truth that is going to be difficult to do with appropriate diversification.

As a practical matter many accounts are going to have to dip into the capital appreciation bucket. In selecting funds or stocks I would array them based on a guess of how many years into the future the particular issuer will pay a dividend that would qualify for inclusion in the capital preservation bucket. In some cases this may be in only a few years. In others, like with Berkshire Hathaway* and Amazon, the indefinite future may be too short. In these cases the willingness to periodically sell off some of the appreciation to fund the preservation bucket could allow the position to be in the portfolio.
* Owned in both a financial sector fund and personal accounts that I manage
<b>Questions of the week:
What portions of your portfolio do you consider Capital Preservation and Capital Appreciation? Do you expect to change these based on market cycles?  

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Investors Should Use Microscopes – Weekly Blog # 513


Learning experiences occur everyday for investors with an active, searching mindset. We can see their importance more clearly if we utilize a number of tools. At this point in the market’s evolution from a combination of volatility and no forward progress for many stocks, we should be searching for some guides for both our investment emotions and our considered actions. I am suggesting there may be some valuable insights being offered by looking through a microscope as to very recent investment performance for equities and fixed income.

 Current Views through a Microscope – Equities

One of the basic beliefs supporting market analysis is that from time to time the ownership of stocks rotates from “strong” sound, long- term holders to short-term oriented momentum trading “weak” players. Strong and weak are applied loyally to their current holdings. In theory the market’s purpose for periodic meaningful declines is to shake out the weak holders selling at indiscriminate prices; e.g., offering bargain prices to strong buyers who foresee longer term value at these depressed prices. Historically, after a low price is followed by a rally, the question comes up whether the low price is actually the bottom of the move. Often a second or even a third down move “test” is required to convince some strong investors to be buyers. These tests can be at or somewhat near the prior low price. For me it is not only the price move that is critical in declaring a bottom. What I look for is a dramatic change in attitude on the part of the sellers who are exhausted from the emotions of the decline and proclaim they are leaving the game, often calling it “fixed.” At the moment I am not hearing this lament from the sellers. Thus, I believe the February bottom to be a weak bottom. Most of the time weak bottoms are not when the base for subsequent, substantially new highs are generated.

With the above thoughts in mind I wonder whether the stock market, not individual stocks has seen its high in January, which would fit the pattern of post performance from a prior good year.

For Those Committed to Equities for the Long-Term

Many of us have responsibilities to be largely invested in stocks or stock funds because the history of successful large macro bets is poor for many that have tried. Getting three successive correct decisions (Buy-Sell-Buy) in a row has proved to be difficult for most who try. Thus for the rest of us professionals we try to produce the best returns that we can within our prescribed market.

One of the reasons that all institutional investors should pay attention to the results of mutual funds is in aggregate they are the best contemporaneous record of institutional money. (Bear in mind many of the mutual fund management shops manage a great deal of money in non-mutual fund accounts, but use many of the same securities and strategies.) By using a microscope on the very small number of average mutual fund performance through March 1st, one can see some useful patterns. The average US oriented diversified fund declined only -0.31% where the average sector fund fell -3.13 % and the average world equity fund gained +0.11%. What these numbers suggest to me is that during periods of volatility liquidity is important. Further, that an important part of short-term global investing are the inputs from currencies.

There are some other lessons from this study. The best diversified US oriented fund category was the Large-cap Growth funds, which gained +4.02%. (Part of the gain is probably due to investments in a small number of globally oriented tech companies; the average Global Science & Tech fund rose +6.36%) What is significant about the leading performance of the Large Cap Growth funds is that in most weeks it has the largest redemptions. Contrary to the popular view that redemptions are a sign of disappointment in returns, (as these are often the oldest funds many investors own) the redemptions are the completion of particular phases in an investor’s life cycle; e.g., retirement.

Fixed Income through the Microscope

Utilizing the mutual fund data through March 1st, the average domestic fixed income fund was down -0.91%. Not particularly helpful to balanced accounts that were looking to fixed income gains for stability to offset equity losses. Institutional investors and some retail investors did find better investments than the general bond market in Loan Participation funds (Bank Loans) +0.97% and Emerging Market Debt funds in local currencies +2.65%. To emphasize, the importance of currency in Emerging Market Debt fund investing, bonds traded in dollars were down -0.63%.

In reading the annual reports of fixed income funds that our clients own, I found the following statement, “Credit sector is less compelling.” This particular fund has a long history of providing slightly above average income with less downside than most of its peers. Currently, they are sitting with shorter duration bonds or higher quality.

I have written in the past of my unease with the growth of credit funds, both in the US and globally. The leading bank distributing syndicated loans is Bank of America, not one of the leaders that I know of in credit research. The search for yield has been a trap in the past.
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A. Michael Lipper, CFA
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